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Commentary March 17th, 2021
Delivery • Health • Innovation
Patty Fong Program Director, Climate and Health & Well-being, Global Alliance for the Future of Food

A systemic response to the food, climate and health crises: there is no other way

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.@futureoffoodorg's @pattyfong17 encourages policymakers to adopt #systemsthinking in order to effectively change industrialised food systems

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"By embracing systems-thinking, policymakers can more effectively create impactful change by taking action on multiple fronts rather than acting in isolation." @pattyfong17 @futureoffoodorg @center4goodfood

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In Chile & Los Angeles, governments have embraced #systemsthinking and are creating meaningful change in food systems - but more needs to be done to deliver a sustainable, resilient future

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As governments around the world tackle the COVID-19 crisis, an unexpected silver lining has appeared - the recovery and stimulus packages being developed give governments the perfect opportunity to show real leadership through integrated approaches to policymaking, especially connecting the food, climate, and health briefs. The disruption wreaked by the pandemic has opened the door to radical change in how policymakers, as problem-solvers, can approach food systems transformation, setting the stage for real change. 

COVID-19 has shone a light on what happens when humans encroach on natural habitats and erode the natural barriers that exist between human and animal populations. In recent years, the delicate balance and interdependence of ecological, animal and human health has been consistently undermined in favour of unsustainable practices, especially when it comes to land use for food and agriculture. Now we are facing three interlinked health crises - planetary, human and animal.

The disruption wreaked by the pandemic has opened the door to radical change in how policymakers, as problem-solvers, can approach food systems transformation, setting the stage for real change.

All too often mainstream analysis ignores the complex web of causality and interactions across the food systems practices that systematically generate health risks. When we obscure key connections and undermine the basis for comprehensive understanding, we miss out on systemic action to address health risks in food systems. The way to stop these crises from worsening is through acknowledging that our industrialized food systems are no longer fit for purpose and that it requires leadership at the policy-level to catalyze the necessary and systemic changes, with a commitment to ensuring integrated and inclusive policy reform. A key message from the 2020 Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change argues that aligning the global recovery from COVID-19 with action on climate offers a triple win: improve public health, create a sustainable economy, and protect the environment. 

We must act. 

This year, there are many opportunities to bring bold, transformative change. The UN Convention on Biodiversity (COP15), the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), and the UN Food Systems Summit are all opportunities where decision-makers can commit to meaningful policy reform and to create enabling environments for practice reform that will have significant consequences for sustainability and social, environmental, and economic justice. These global milestones could set the stage for governments to lead an absolute transformation in how we grow, harvest, distribute, market, eat, and dispose of food which will, in turn, enable us to tackle the root causes of malnutrition, climate change, biodiversity loss, and more. Policymakers in government must take this opportunity to think differently and act using the diverse ‘levers of change’ available to them. 

We have tried the old ways, and they are not working. 

Across policy and practice, these levers of change include vision and leadership, governance, fiscal influences, knowledge and education, research and innovation, and collaboration. Each one is important; real change cannot happen without all of these levers being approached through a systems-lens. By thinking in systems, policymakers can also avoid making siloed interventions which can often lead to unintended consequences and compound existing structural inequalities. The good news is that there are a plethora of examples of initiatives by governments to learn from already. 

In Chile, the government led a multifaceted approach driven by these levers of change to tackle their obesity epidemic and reduce diet-related diseases. They introduced laws that mandated front-of-packaging labeling for packaged foods high in sugars, saturated fats, and sodium, as well as restrictions on advertising and a ban on the sale or promotion of these foods in schools and nurseries. When research informed them that children of disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to be affected by obesity, a school feeding program was funded, providing free breakfast, snacks, and lunch to more than 50% of school-aged children of disadvantaged families. Early results of this initiative are positive, with a decrease of 23.7% in the purchase of high sugar beverages. 

Also, in the US, government policymakers in Los Angeles created meaningful change in their food systems by turning their attention to the meal program for the Los Angeles Unified School District, who serve upwards of 750,000 meals a day. The Good Food Purchasing Program was created by stakeholders across the Los Angeles government, driven by research into sustainable and humane practices, healthy eating and support for local businesses. It provided a metric-based, flexible framework that encourages large institutions to direct their buying power towards ‘good food’ and the multiple benefits it can bring. This initiative created 150 jobs, redirected $12 million back into local, sustainable food production, and increased sourcing of local produce 60% in its first year alone. The initiative has now spread to many other major cities around the US.

By embracing systems-thinking, policymakers can more effectively create impactful change by taking action on multiple fronts rather than acting in isolation.

These two examples show that by embracing systems-thinking, policymakers can more effectively create impactful change by taking action on multiple fronts rather than acting in isolation. Industry and key stakeholders have already shown their readiness to take part in these system changes, but increasingly are calling on policymakers to connect the dots between health crises and food transformation. Among the many resources and tools available, policymakers can turn to Systemic Solutions for Healthy Food Systems: A Guide to Government Action and even the WHO’s Manifesto for Health Recovery from COVID-19, for inspiration of next steps. 

Ultimately, governments can and must do more. By collaborating with all stakeholders, creating fiscal incentives and instituting stricter governance, policymakers can go beyond simply “build back better” or a “new normal” but deliver a future that is sustainable, equitable and truly resilient to future shocks.

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Patty Fong Program Director, Climate and Health & Well-being, Global Alliance for the Future of Food
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